Thursday, May 5, 2016

Acceleration of generational change

If I had the time I would write this book, or maybe the book already exists (?); nevertheless, I would write a book about the generations that have really mattered in human history.... And speculate about the generations that will matter in the future....

Today, we classify generations based on the pace of technological change. The truth is, for over 90% of human history, technological change hasn't been a factor; technology didn't changed much from one generation to the next, hence generations didn't matter so much. One generation was hardly distinguishable from the last.

Historians might take exception with my claim: with migration, exploration, conquest, and mixing of peoples, religions and cultures, one generation of people in a particular place could be dramatically different than another. But such historical changes mostly revolved around culture. Culture is important but deeper analysis is called for....

It would be interesting to trace an exact date when generations started to become markedly different. Up until about 150 or 120 years ago, there were long gaps between significant changes. Today, we name each new generation; a reason why is that we take it for granted that each new generation will look at the world differently, and, essentially, be smarter than us.  The driver of change is technological innovation that makes the world smaller; technology that changes our ideas of what it means to be human, and what it means to be members of a planetary race....

In ancient history we talk of ages, not generations, because historical records aren't so precise; and because changes spread slowly and locally because of distance and poor communications.

Granted, even today change doesn't spread uniformly.  The Internet still has poor penetration in Africa, for instance.  Yet in the not-too-distant future, we can anticipate that everyone will have access to all of the latest knowledge via the Internet.  Air travel, phones and television already facilitate cultural mixing on an unprecedented scale.

What will be the clear markers of future generations?  Space colonization?  Unlocking the secrets of human immortality? Climate change catastrophe?  Roboticization of most human work?  The common integration of tech hardware and software with human bodies, i.e. androids?  Some breakthrough discovery in physics that unites relativity and quantum physics. i.e. a Unified Field Theory?  A new economic system that supplants capitalism?  The decline of religious practice?  Massive migration from the developed to the developing world?  Widespread negative birthrates (which are already happening in Europe)?  Or a combination of all these factors and other things?

The crazy thing is, today we can almost anticipate what those changes will be. We know that most of the above-mentioned drivers of change will happen, or are happening; their advent is only a matter of time.

And perhaps our current anticipation of future change is a generational marker in an of itself. Perhaps historians in the future will look back and say, in the 21st century, humans for the first time were able to predict accurately futures that hadn't happened yet.  Perhaps that will be a great marker in human time.  We take our forward-looking for granted, but relatively it is a very, very recent phenomenon. These are the first generations looking forward and backward at the same time, but for the first time perhaps in human history, more focused on the future. Today we expect the world to be turned upside-down. We are the first generations to anticipate our own obsolescence.